Bettina Wistrom, OECD Statistics Directorate
Economic growth (GDP) always gets a lot of attention, but when it comes to determining how people are doing it’s interesting to look at other indicators that focus more on the actual material conditions of households. Let’s see how households in Australia are doing by looking at a few alternative indicators.
GDP and household income
Real household disposable income per capita increased 0.9% in Q1 2016 compared to the previous quarter (the index increased from 113.7 in Q4 2015 to 114.7 in Q1 2016), outpacing GDP per capita which increased 0.6% from the previous quarter (the index increased from 108.1 in Q4 2015 to 108.8 in Q1 2016). The rise in household disposable income mainly reflected a growing compensation of employees and income from self-employment, and – to a slighter extent – an increase in interest received by households.
This recent development continues the trend observed since the first quarter of 2007. Indeed Australian real household disposable income per capita has grown considerably more than real GDP per capita: 14.7% versus 8.8% (chart 1). The growth in household income over that period partly reflects government interventions during the first years of the crisis which, it is worth noting, did not impact the Australian economy as severely as it did other OECD countries. Even though there was a dip in economic activity in Q4 2008, the Australian economy was never formally in recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth).
Chart 2 shows that net cash transfers to households increased sharply at the start of the financial crisis, mainly due to increases in social benefits. Since the peak in Q2 2009, net cash transfers to households exhibit a downward trend corresponding to the time period when economic growth and household disposable income have started to move (more or less) in tandem.
Confidence, consumption and savings
Household disposable income is a meaningful way to assess material living standards, but to get a fuller picture of household economic well-being, one may also want to look at households’ consumption behaviour. Consumer confidence (chart 3) remained broadly stable at 99.7 in Q1 2016. This contributed to sustaining real household consumption expenditure per capita which increased by 0.3% in Q1 2016 (the index increased from 107.7 in Q4 2015 to 108.0 in Q1 2016) (chart 4).
The households’ savings rate (chart 5) shows the proportion that households are saving out of current income. In Q1 2016, the savings rate ticked-up to 15.8% showing that households chose to save some of their additional income, rather than spending it on goods and services. Overall, Australian households have a relatively high savings rate. Over the whole period observed, the average rate is 16.2%, one of the highest among OECD countries. In Q4 2008, the savings rate increased sharply, to its highest level (19%), partly reflecting households’ responses to deteriorations in financial markets and an increased level of uncertainty over future income.
Debt and net worth
The households’ indebtedness ratio, i.e. the total outstanding debt of households as a percentage of their disposable income, may reflect (changes in) financial vulnerabilities of the household sector and provides a useful yardstick to assess their debt sustainability. In Q1 2016, household indebtedness increased to 198.5% of disposable income (chart 6), doubling over the past 20 years and one of the highest levels among OECD countries. This rise in household’s indebtedness followed the introduction of mortgage packages in the 1980s and 90s, which allowed homeowners to draw down on their mortgages when needed, without having to sell their house. In addition Australian households have increasingly borrowed money to finance house purchases (Chart 6).
When assessing households’ economic vulnerabilities, one should also look at the availability of assets, preferably taking into account both financial assets (saving deposits, shares, etc.) and non-financial assets (for households, predominantly dwellings). Because information on households’ non-financial assets is generally not available on a quarterly basis, financial net worth (i.e. the excess of financial assets over liabilities) is used as an indicator of the financial vulnerability of households.
In Q1 2016, financial net worth of households was 183.9% of disposable income (chart 7), 4.9 percentage points less than in the previous quarter. This decrease was predominately driven by the rise in household debt (chart 6), and holding losses on pension assets, equity and investment fund shares.
The unemployment rate and the labour underutilisation rate (chart 8) also provide indications of potential vulnerabilities of the household sector. More generally, unemployment has a major impact on people’s well-being. In Q1 2016 the unemployment rate in Australia remained at 5.8%, while the labour underutilisation rate, which takes into account underemployed workers and discouraged job seekers, decreased slightly to 21.3% (from 21.8% in Q4 2015). Notwithstanding this small decline, the gap between the unemployment rate and the labour underutilisation rate remains large in Australia – the largest among OECD countries, indicating unmet aspirations for more work among Australian workers.
One should keep in mind that households’ income, consumption and savings may differ considerably across various groups of households; the same holds for households’ indebtedness and (financial) net worth. The OECD is working on these distributional aspects and preliminary results can be found here and here. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has also a long history analysing households’ developments broken down by income and household characteristics.
Overall, the first quarter of 2016 saw a continued increase of Australian households’ material well-being with still expanding income and consumption per capita. The upward trend in the household debt-to-income ratio and the high labour underutilisation rate – reflecting the challenge for some groups of workers to bounce back after displacement – remain a source of concern. Despite increasing household debt, financial net worth is slowly getting back to its pre-crisis level. However, to fully grasp people’s overall well-being, one should go beyond material conditions, and also look at a range of other dimensions of what shapes people’s lives, as is done in the OECD Better Life Initiative.
For many years, OECD has been focusing on people’s well-being and societal progress. To learn more on OECD’s work on measuring well-being, visit the Better Life Initiative.
Interested in how households are doing in other OECD countries? Visit our household’s economic well-being dashboard.